Letter from the Maldives

by Natalie Bennett

The Maldives – a tropical paradise of palm-fringed beaches, brilliantly-coloured sea life; the cocktails at sunset oiling sensuous nights. At least, that’s what the tourists see. Few realise they’re in the last apartheid state, where they’re rigorously separated from locals.

The helpful and smiling staff in the resorts are Sri Lankans, Indians and Pakistanis. The only Maldivians most tourists see in their ten-day all-inclusive packages are the young male immigration and customs staff.

Half the locals (125,000 of them) live on the small island capital Male, which you can walk around in half an hour. The remainder are on squalid little isles, dependent on fishing. Male’s narrow lanes are lined with squat, plastered houses, usually windowless, although mini-apartment blocks or mansions of four or five storeys are starting to spring up all over.

There’s one park, open on Fridays, and they’re ‘building’ a beach, but otherwise people (men, at least) hang around the streets; women are only seen in early mornings or late evenings, spending the rest of the time in their eight-or-more-to-a-room homes. After finishing lower secondary school, boys hope for government scholarships, which might lead abroad, to university (there are none in the Maldives); low-paid tourism jobs or fishing don’t appeal.

On Male there are a few restaurants, lots of tea houses (almost solely for men) and no pubs – the entire island is dry. Maldivians, with the highest GDP per head in south Asia, are not by world standards poor – tourism and clothing manufacture (chiefly staffed by young Sri Lankan women living in barracks) have seen to that.

But the poverty of lifestyle’s frightening. Even the diet’s dull – rice and boiled fish three times a day, or fish curry. There’s less than 25 hectares of arable land, so the lack of fruit and vegetables is not surprising, but… could do better, surely. No wonder the divorce- and birth-rates are astonishing. The average woman has seven children from four marriages, the first usually just into her teens.

As for the government; it’s a sort of democracy. The sort where the same president keeps getting re-elected. The new National Parliament Building was constructed by Pakistan, the new National Hospital (almost entirety staffed by Indians) was constructed by India, in a rather more pointless scrabble for influence than the one currently taxing our new nuclear super powers.

The average height above sea level of the entire nation is 1.6 metres, so the Maldives is one of the states most at risk should even the mildest predictions of the greenhouse gas gurus be proved correct. Socially and culturally, their demise would hardly be any great loss to the world.

This article first appeared in Bangkok Metro magazine in 1998


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